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The psycholinguistic phenomenon

By Ed Shiller


There is no doubt that the literal meaning of the words you use in written or oral communications will have an effect on the people you are trying to reach. But equally, if not more, important are the meanings conveyed by our nonverbal communication. How you say something when communicating orally - your tone of voice, inflection, eye movement, body language – or how you use grammar, syntax and vocabulary in both oral and written communications greatly affects your credibility, your likeability and, hence, your persuasiveness.

The full character of your written and oral communications is determined less by a conscious intellectual process than by an unconscious manifestation of attitudes. Therefore, to communicate effectively, you must mobilize not only your intellect, but your emotions and mindset as well.

This process, which constitutes a segment of the emerging science of psycholinguistics, can be reduced to this thought: If the medium is the message, then you are the medium. Your words will convey information and viewpoints. But whether those words are believed and how they are interpreted are determined by overall behaviour and the nature of residual good will or ill will you have banked in the past.

Because of the distinction between words and messages, the phrase "key point" is used to describe the actual written or spoken words, and the phrase "key message" or the word "message" is used to describe what the written or spoken words combined with the nonverbal aspect of communications actually convey.

The distinction between "key point" and "key message" within the context of psycholinguistics has enormous ramifications that affect every written and oral communication.

Not the least of these ramifications is the refutation of the fundamental dictum of current media training wisdom: Stay on message. Staying on message is the core concept delivered at virtually every North American media training session. Spokespersons are taught to articulate the "message" they want to deliver in an interview and by using a variety of "bridging" techniques to interject the phrase containing that message into their answers, regardless of the relevance of that phrase to the question.


The underlying assumption of this approach to media interviews is that audiences will accept as valid the literal meaning of the words you speak. This assumption, however, does not withstand scrutiny. Clearly, for example, you would not be believed if you announced that you were Julius
Caesar. You would certainly be conveying a message, but it would not be that you are an embodiment of the leader of ancient Rome. QED, the message that you convey does not necessary equate to the literal meaning of your words.

In fact, it would be your behaviour - i.e., the nonverbal aspect of what you say - that determines the message. If for example, your behaviour indicate that you truly believed your claim that you are Julius Caesar, the likely message that your audience would receive is that you are
delusional. By the same token, the behaviour spokespersons display when employing bridging techniques during an interview might well convey the message that they are devious, manipulative and have something to hide.

Another ramification of the distinction between key point and key message pertains to self-praise. Pick up any news release that an organization issues to publicize one of its good works or acts of generosity and you will likely find a quote proclaiming that the deed "demonstrates our ongoing commitment to giving back to the community." This may, in fact, be the case. The organization might truly accept what it regards as an obligation to be a good corporate citizen. But stating this commitment may well be perceived as self-serving and thus undermine the perception of good corporate citizenship that the organization wants to convey.

Such statements are self-serving and hence alienating because they tend to convey the impression that the organization is promoting a cause not so much because of the public benefits that will accrue, but because the organization wants to look good and be praised. On the other hand, the
organization would more likely be perceived as being a good corporate citizen if the news release it issued omitted any self-praise and focused instead on the public benefits that would flow from the announced good deed.


Here's a good rule of thumb: Don't barrage your publics with self-serving statements about how wonderful you are; instead, tell them what you are doing and objectively describe how this benefits your publics and the likely outcome is that people will conclude on their own how wonderful you are.

Copyright 2008 by Ed Shiller